Iggy in the middle

‘People will write what they write. And frankly they can go to hell.’

At an outdoor job fair on a street corner in west Toronto, Michael Ignatieff climbs on a makeshift stage and publicly states his support for the local butcher, among other neighbourhood amenities. He keeps his remarks short, and then gets to shaking hands. There’s a guy wearing a T-shirt that helpfully instructs, “Don’t feed the bears,” and a gentleman dressed all in black, whose hat identifies him as “100 per cent Newfie.” Ignatieff lets a stranger put sunscreen on his hands and talks to a woman already recruiting volunteers for this year’s Santa Claus parade.

A moment later—Ignatieff walks fast—he’s across the street. He runs into the Newfie again. Then a young boy playing the violin. Then his NDP rival. Then a woman from the Humane Society. Then some firefighters. He likes this. Says it’s the “realest” part of his job. None of which would be that notable if it weren’t so at odds with what is generally believed about Michael Ignatieff.

“I don’t have to put it on, I enjoy meeting people,” he says later. “I enjoy the sense of being finished with abstractions. I’ve talked politics all my life, this is politics.”

It is understood implicitly that Michael Ignatieff is a politician and, therefore, must politic like all the rest. But otherwise, he is only ever discussed as being above or below this. He is either the Harvard intellectual with Russian royalty in his blood and Canadian aristocracy to his name. Or he is the brooding Machiavelli, conspiring in the shadows to overthrow Stéphane Dion. He is either the party’s greatest asset. Or its leader’s most conniving rival. (Or maybe both.)

In a campaign office at the end of an Etobicoke strip mall, he is only the candidate, albeit one with arty campaign banners bearing his likeness. His wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, works the front desk, greeting volunteers. There are lawn signs piled high in the backroom, colour-coded maps of the riding on the wall and pans of lasagna laid out for lunch. Ignatieff pauses to eat, then he’s back in a volunteer’s car and, after a short drive, strolling around a leafy neighbourhood. While he walks, he talks thoughtfully of what it is he does for a living. But he is tactfully self-deprecating. “I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to politics,” he tells one constituent.

Whatever his attempts to undermine his own reputation, it is resilient. Last week, after a quiet start to the national campaign, Ignatieff and the other perceived usurper, Bob Rae, appeared at Dion’s side. This was first interpreted as an explicit attempt to lend eloquence and charisma to the floundering Liberal leader. And then it was reported as nothing less than a plot to “outshine” Dion. “They know full well what they are doing. It’s obvious,” huffed one of the 300 anonymous senior strategists who populate the Liberal party.

Back at his own campaign headquarters, in a small office with two televisions buzzing in the corner, Ignatieff is serious now, but talkative and blunt. “Look, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t,” he says. “My view of this is that Dion has benefited from 18 months of considerably greater unity in the party than, say, Turner enjoyed or that Chrétien enjoyed. I can’t say it often enough. I had a millisecond to react to defeat in December 2006, on live television, in real time. And I made a strategic decision in that millisecond that the right thing to do, in every meaning of the word right thing to do, was . . . that the party had made its choice. Was I happy with the choice? No. Because I wanted to win. But the party made its choice and I’ve stood with the guy ever since.”

Does he fear that his loyalists are perhaps not so supportive? “I’ve made it very clear to everybody who supported me in 2006 that we have one objective. Which is to make this guy the prime minister of Canada,” he says. “I’d like to be a minister in a Liberal government. I would. But the point is, we’re in a situation where it actually doesn’t matter what the hell I say. People will write what they write. And, frankly, they can go to hell.”

He talks of the last two years as “exhilarating” and “difficult.” “The basic thing is I’ve got skin in the game. That is, I’ve been on the other side of this microphone, right? There are real things at stake for me here. You’re no longer a spectator, you’re a participant.”

It’s pointed out that were he on the other side of the microphone he’d argue that no one stands to gain as much from his party losing as Michael Ignatieff. “I don’t want our party to lose,” he says. He talks of “tribal loyalties” and knocking on doors at age 17. “This is the institution that was founded by Laurier, you don’t mess around with that. You want it to succeed all the time,” he continues. “If it fails, then we’re into another scenario. But the only scenario I’m looking at is up to Oct. 14. Because you start thinking about anything else and you will start making mistakes. And the party can’t afford me to make mistakes. The party needs me to execute flawlessly. And if we fail to do that, we’re going to deliver this guy a majority. And then a lot of the party will turn around and say, what the hell were you thinking? This is the real deal. I don’t want to give Stephen Harper a majority government. And the party would not forgive anybody among us who said anything that would make that possible.”

A couple of sentences more and he’s done. “Thank you for listening to me,” he says. “I gotta go.” A moment later he’s out the door, walking down the road to a nearby strip mall, where he’ll stand out front of a Shoppers Drug Mart and shake hands for another half-hour before calling it a day.

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